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Practical Application of OSHA Health Standards

Back in 1970, when the OSH Act was signed into law by President Nixon, the newly formed OSHA had a relatively short time frame to put into effect numerous and wide-ranging standards to protect American workers. To do so efficiently and expeditiously, OSHA relied heavily on standards and guidelines already vetted and published by industry experts and trade associations. One such organization, the American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH), published recommended occupational exposure limits for a variety of common and potentially hazardous airborne workplace chemicals. These limits, trademarked by the ACGIH as Threshold Limit Values (TLVs) and referred to by OSHA as Permissible Exposure Limits (PELs), are defined as the maximum amount of an airborne contaminant an employee may be exposed to over an 8-hour work shift and not experience adverse health effects. The 1968 version of the TLVs was adopted by OSHA when it first promulgated the 29 CFR 1910.1000 standard. The limitation with using these PELs is that they are based on the scientific and epidemiological data available in the mid-to late-1960s. Since that time, more research has been done and some PELs adopted by OSHA have been found to not be protective enough of worker’s health.

Unfortunately, OSHA must go through an extensive and glacially-paced regulatory process in order to change a PEL. In fact, OSHA has only been able to update about 30 of the 500+ PELs since the agency’s inception. The ACGIH, not being bound by the same regulatory process that OSHA must follow, annually reviews its TLVs and has lowered numerous TLVs, sometimes by as much as half or more. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) also researches occupational exposures and publishes recommended exposure limits (RELs) based on their findings.

So what does this all mean for you, the employer? How can a company practically apply the OSHA PELs? And as mentioned earlier, some PELs are old and outdated, so what responsibilities does an employer have to its employees?

• The first point to keep in mind is that OSHA PELs are legally enforceable and the employer is bound by law to keep exposures below the limits published in the standard. ACGIH TLVs and NIOSH RELs are recommendations and are therefore not enforceable. More on that later.

• The second point to keep in mind is that the OSHA standard is a minimum standard, meaning that the standard offers the minimum protection to employees and that there is opportunity for the employer to provide further protection.

• The third point to keep in mind is that the PELs are set to prevent acute or chronic adverse health effects and do not take into account adverse employee reactions. For example, I recently conducted air sampling for xylene, which has a PEL of 100 parts per million (ppm) but an odor threshold of 1 ppm. This means that the average person can smell xylene in concentrations 100 times lower than what OSHA considers to be hazardous to an employee’s health. This is a pretty handy piece of human evolution: we want to be able to detect potential hazards so we can escape before they can do actual harm. The results of my sampling showed the employee was exposed to levels that are not expected to cause any chronic or even short term health effects (in fact, levels were even well below the odor threshold) but despite this, the employee complained of dizziness and chest discomfort by the end of the shift simply because he smelled “something”, in this case another component of the mixture he was using. In this situation, was the employee over-exposed? If the employee filed a complaint with OSHA and OSHA obtained similar results, would the employer be cited and/or fined? The answer to both questions is: no. I use this example to illustrate how, even though the employer is providing a safe work environment, just the employee merely thinking they were overexposed caused anxiety and low morale which could potentially lead to reduced productivity, high turnover rates, and perhaps even a formal complaint to OSHA.

• The last point to keep in mind relates back to the first. OSHA recognized that some standards would not be protective enough so as part of the OSH Act it included section 5(a)(1), commonly referred to as the general duty clause. This acts as a catch-all for OSHA and puts the responsibility on the employer to be aware of and protect employees from recognized hazards. So how does OSHA determine a hazard is recognized? The main vehicle OSHA uses is review of published industry standards or guidelines like the ACGIH TLVs or NIOSH RELs. This means that the information is available to the employer and the employer should be aware of the information. Let’s take ethylbenzene as an example. The OSHA PEL is 100 ppm but the ACGIH TLV is 20 ppm. If OSHA finds an employee is exposed to 50 ppm, will they issue a citation and fine the employer? The answer to that is: maybe. Citations and fines on 5(a)(1) violations are a little trickier and OSHA weighs several factors in such cases. The point being that relying solely on the PEL may not be enough for an employer to claim they are providing a workplace safe from recognized hazards.

I hope that this has been an effective illustration of the limitations of only adhering to the OSHA PELs. The bottom line is that chemical exposures in the workplace should be minimized as much as possible, regardless of published exposure limits. Employers may use substitution; elimination; engineering controls such as ventilation; or, when those are not feasible, personal protective equipment to control employee exposure. USF SafetyFlorida’s consultants are available to help employers navigate the ins and outs of OSHA standards, and to help employers provide a safe and healthy working environment for the workers of Florida.